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Herbal Corner
By Julene Tripp Weaver

How The Liver Works and the use of Milk Thistle as a Protectant

The roles of the liver

The liver is known as the master chemist of the body and it is the second largest organ in the body, after the skin. The liver weighs three pounds and sits under the lower right rib cage. Liver chemistry is very complicated with hundreds of functions; one of the main roles of the liver is its assistance with the digestion of food, or the transformation of food into a usable form. The liver breaks down, redirects, and stores fats, carbohydrates, and proteins; it produces bile, synthesizes and regulates cholesterol; it separates out and stores glucose to regulate blood sugar levels; it breaks down amino acids and produces clotting factors; it metabolizes fat soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A and stores Vitamins B12, D, K, and iron. The liver helps create red and white blood cells, and assists in the making of hormones.

Everything we eat passes through the liver. The portal system of veins absorb nutrients from the intestine and all the products of digestion filter through the liver. It detoxifies the many poisons of our standard American diet. Regularily we put things in the liver, three to four times a day, year after year, that the liver was never meant to deal with. On a daily basis the liver processes molecules such as pesticides, herbicides, food preservatives, food coloring, unnatural substances from chemical reactions of air pollution, and any chemical medications. This includes exposure to tobacco smoke. This daily onslaught overstresses this very important organ. Declare a be kind to liver week, or month, or year, and only put things in your body that the liver knows how to deal with. This means fresh, whole, organically grown plant based foods.

The liver plays a major role in the blood and immune systems. As the main detoxification organ of the body, three pints of blood filter through the liver every minute. All nutrients, toxins, drugs or any substances that enters the body, are transformed and detoxified as long as this organ is functioning well. The excretion mechanism of the liver is a two phase process. Phase one liver detoxification is oxidation, the liver oxidizes the molecule that it needs to get rid of by stripping off extra electrons. Phase two is excretion from the liver. The excretion process is where the changed molecule is connected with a carrier molecule that makes it soluble into the bile. Once it is soluble it blends into the bile and the fecal stream carries it out of the body.

There are many conditions that interfere with either phase one or phase two. And again, it has to do with the many abnormal molecules that are ingested through diet, drink, and the air breathed. The liver can become sluggish and overworked. So, there are natural substances that will enhance each phase of detoxification.

The herb Milk Thistle seed, also known by its Latin name Silymarin, is an enhancer of phase one oxidation, it steps up the enzymes in your system that oxidize these foreign molecules to help detoxify. For phase two to work correctly it is important that your diet contain vegetables that contain sulfur. Sulfation is a major method of excretion. Sulfur based foods are garlic, onions, or any of the cruciferous family vegetables such as cabbage, kale, mustard greens, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, broccoli. All these vegetables will help the liver excrete well and they are all associated with lower cancer rates (particularly of the colon, rectum, stomach, and possibly, prostate and bladder). Eat an ample amount of these, and drink lots of water, to keep your liver flushed.

Since all prescription drugs pass through the liver for detoxification the more drugs one is on the harder it is for the liver. When these drugs pass through the liver cells die by the hundreds of thousands. The cumulative effect of drug use on the liver can be devastating. If you are on a lot of drugs it is a good idea to supplement with milk thistle seed. It has been shown experimentally that the use of milk thistle prevents liver damage caused by psychopharmacological drugs.

Milk Thistle as a Protectant and Liver Healer

Milk Thistle, Latin name: Silybum marianum

Milk Thistle is a thistle plant with milky white veins running through its green leaves. It has a large purple flower head. It is in the same family as artichokes which are also good for your liver. The seeds of the Milk Thistle contain Silybum, a flavonol (1), which acts on the cell membranes to protect the cells of the liver. Silybum acts as an antioxidant, an antioxidant is a chemical that neutralizes toxins, inhibits oxidation, and maintains life processes at optimun efficiency. Antioxidants are needed to oxidize the many pollutants the liver filters in its phase one detoxification process.

Much scientific research has been done to prove this protectant and regenerative action. In Germany Milk Thistle is prescribed by doctors to treat alcoholic cirrhosis, hepatitis, jaundice, and any inflammation or poisoning of the liver. It has been shown that Milk Thistle seed speeds healing or regeneration at four times the normal rate. It is also known as a tonic for the spleen, gall bladder and the upper intestine. Herbalist Michael Moore suggests the use of milk thistle for treatment for chronic liver problems such as rehabilitation from alcohol, or any drug use, protection of liver cells from heavy metal, chemical, and alcohol injury, limiting of fatty degeneration, for the speeding up of hepatitis recovery, and the slowing or reversing of cirrhosis. It has a mild cholagogue effect, meaning it promotes the flow of bile.

Milk thistle seeds are not soluble in water, so a tea is not the best way to absorb the beneficial effects. Some herbalists suggest incorporating the seeds right into the diet, they can be roasted or raw, ground up and added to food. Tieroni Low Dog, a herbalist and MD in New Mexico who works with a lot of HIV clients, recommends the use of a tablespoon a day sprinkled on food. Small amounts can be ground in a coffee grinder, put it in a dark glass jar and kept in the freezer between uses. Once ground it is important to store it in the freezer because it contains essential fatty acids which go rancid quickly once exposed to light and air.

There are standardized capsules that can be taken, the average daily dose is 12 to 15 grams which is the equilivant of 200 to 400 milligrams of silymarin. Capsules usually come in 150 mg or 200 mg dosages. There are no toxic effects reported and milk thistle is a safe additive to protect your liver and to help the regeneration of liver cells. If using a standardized 80% silymarin extract in pill form, a normal dose would be three to six capsules per day, taken with water before meals. If using a tincture of Milk Thistle seeds use 20 drops into a cup of hot tea or hot water and drink before meals, use up to four times a day. These doses help digestion and work slowly over a period of weeks and months to assist metabolic activity and stimulate the regenerative activity of the liver.

A final word on purchasing Milk Thistle seeds; it is important to purchase either organic or wildcrafted seeds that have been grown in this country. There is a large crop of Milk Thistle in Europe, but they have been contaminated after the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Milk Thistle grows in this part of the world and can be purchased at several local high quality herb stores. They can be bought as loose seeds to be used as a food, or as a tincture or in capsules. Buyer's clubs also carry the standardized pills.
(1) Flavonol - a strong antioxidant.

Disclaimer: Please be advised this is a sharing of information that is not meant to be used to replace medical treatment and your own intuitive sense of your body and what it needs. Please see your medical provider (Dr., Naturopath, Acupuncturist, etc.) to follow up on suggestions.